More than 2 million Americans, myself included, have been thrown out into the cold by a gridlocked Congress that has yet to reinstate extended unemployment insurance.
I wasn’t always a statistic. Twelve years ago I was free-lance graphic designer living in downtown Chicago and taking advantage of my two bachelor’s degrees, leading an enjoyable life and earning enough to go on vacation every so often.
Then I was diagnosed with AIDS and my life changed forever. I was sick and went medically bankrupt. I have been underemployed or unemployed ever since, never making more than $25,000 a year because my health care under the Ryan White Act limits the amount I can make and still receive the care I need. In other words, I signed up for unemployment insurance to stay alive.
While unemployment insurance helped me get by — using the very rudimentary meaning of “getting by” — I started to fall behind. Throughout the next decade I did all I could. I tried to pull myself up by my bootstraps, getting my health under control and taking odd jobs to stay afloat, all the while looking for better employment to help me crawl back into the life that I knew. But nothing came along.
When my unemployment insurance ran out over a year ago, it was a nail in the coffin for me. Within the next few weeks I was evicted from my house, and Blanche DuBois describes what happened next the best — I relied on the kindness of strangers to live. Without them I don’t know where I would be. I stayed on friends’ couches, sent my dogs away and swallowed my pride and applied for food stamps.
Getting by on the basics was no longer the goal; having a place to sleep was.
I am so grateful for my friends and my community who helped me get through those dark times. I learned from my Catholic education at an early age that giving back is important, and I take to heart the words “I am my brother’s keeper.” That’s why when the open enrollment period began for the Affordable Care Act last October, I volunteered to be a navigator, helping people sign up for an insurance plan that fits their family and their budget. By that time I had scraped enough money together to get back into my own place, and after working four months as an unpaid volunteer navigator, I am proud to say, I was hired by Enroll Lake County and I’m earning a paycheck. An aside: Enrollment ends March 31, Get Covered Now!
Too often politicians denigrate government programs such as unemployment insurance and say the recipients are lazy. This is as false as it is insulting. I was not sitting around and doing nothing when my life changed 12 years ago, and I am not sitting around doing nothing now. I have been blessed to be healthy enough to work most of the time since my AIDS diagnosis, and I want to work. And now that the possibility of being denied health insurance due to a pre-existing condition is illegal, it is my intention to find the best-paying job I can. I sought government assistance out of circumstance, not because of a lack of ambition.
Unemployment insurance did not give me back the life I knew, but it saved me. That is what it is there for, a safety net for those who need it.
The U.S. Senate should restore unemployment insurance to 2 million Americans quickly, and the House should waste no time in following suit.
Will Wilson lives in Gurnee and is a navigator for Enroll Lake County.